Posts Tagged With: language learning

Sorry, could you repeat that again, por favor?

My teacher says learning a foreign language is a piece of cake...and I LOVE cake!

My teacher says learning a foreign language is a piece of cake…and I LOVE cake!

If you’ve been following me recently, you’ve probably digested my instructions on how to become a fully-fledged traveller. Now I want to focus on the next stage: the day when you decide to settle somewhere for a year or two. This is the time when you reach another plateau, when you become that curious species known as the ‘expat’. This odd term conjures up images of lobster-skinned young males in rope-soled sandals and Hawaiian shirts guffawing together in a beach bar erected between two coconut trees. Sounds like fun? Well, I’m still looking for that bar, though I lost the fag packet with the address scribbled on the back years ago. 

Once you are firmly established as an expat, you have a big decision to make, especially if you are a native English speaker. How much of the lingo do you bother to learn? After all, you can get by in most countries with English and a smattering of the local language. So much so, that English speakers have become hopelessly lazy at learning other langauges. Many expats I have met socialize mostly with fellow English speakers and refrain from making inroads into their adopted culture and its native language. Why should they? These types exist in a kind of bubble, craning their necks to hear the Hartlepool football result every Saturday whilst crying over their cackhanded attempts to make toad-in-the-hole.

Don't be a naff tourist - learn the local lingo!

Don’t be a naff tourist – learn the local lingo!

But some of us like a challenge, and there is something magical about submerging yourself in another language and losing your clumsily conventional Britishness. So we try our damnedest to learn the native tongue, patting ourselves on the back every time we buy a pair of flip-flops without hitting a brick wall of incomprehension. Then comes the dreadfully painful day when we realise our so-called ‘fluency’ is mangled by a heavy accent you could cut with cheese wire. Curses! Why do I have to sound so foreign? Why can everybody tell a mile away that I’m from Doncaster?  What do I have to do to sound like Rafael? Eat more garlic or put a snail under my tongue?

Spot on, Haruki, whoever you are...

You took the words right out of my mouth…

No, but you have to face the fact that every language learning attempt reaches a glass ceiling beyond which you may only venture if you are prepared to split your personality. To take that final leap into the unknown means leaving your former self behind. To crack the native accent, you have to reinvent yourself, to adopt a new persona. To copy all those tricky sounds you have to become a mimic, a barefaced ventriloquist who can fool a native for at least a couple of minutes. Believe me, this is so difficult it makes nuclear physics look like Candy Crush.

As an illustration, I will compare two Brazilian speakers of English I met a few years back in Rio. One was a young woman who had just returned to Brazil after spending 5 years in England. She came to me for lessons, but only 2 minutes into the first lesson I stopped her short and said: “Your English is so good you sound like a native. You don’t need me.” But as the lesson continued I began to notice how many little errors she was making – I had been fooled completely by the accent. She was the exception that proves the rule. The other case was a Brazilian teacher of English who, in a higher teaching diploma exam, gained the highest score for that year in the whole of South America. Her English was exceptional, virtually error-free, except for one thing: her accent was as heavy as a wheelbarrow full of church lead. You always knew when she was coming down the corridor of the school because the cockroaches jumped out of the window en-masse.

I clicked and clicked and clicked until I cried

I clicked and clicked and clicked until I cried…

So, unfortunately, unless you have an ear for mimicry and are prepared to contort your precious voice into myriad new-fangled sounds, forget mastering the accent. As if that wasn’t bad enough, there is another intimidating barrier you come up against as a language learner. Teaching yourself to say a few things and be understood is all well and good. But how the hell are you supposed to catch the flow when people are rabbiting nineteen to the dozen? In other words, understanding is always more difficult than being understood: you can speak the new language at your nice, slow pace, but native speakers expect you to follow their rapid delivery, with different accents, registers and slang thrown in. Often you feel like shouting SLOW DOWN!, but that would only expose your incompetence. So instead you stand there grinning from ear to ear praying that the speaker hasn’t asked you a question and you’ve missed it.

I once had an extraordinary phone conversation with a tele-sales girl in São Paulo (phone calls are mostly nightmare in another language). She called me to discuss a new phone plan and before I could stop her, she had launched into a quick-fire spiel about the new services I should expect to receive . When she stopped there was a crackly pause and she asked if I was still there. I said yes (sim), and then tried ineptly to produce a summary of what she had just told me, missing out loads. This gave her a fit of the giggles. When I did get something right she said (I’m translating): “Yes, that’s it, Mr Martin!”, obviously trying not to laugh. Then the inevitable happened and she asked me where I was from (a sure sign you don’t fool anybody). I nearly said Bradford but thought better of it.

Sorry, can't help you with that rubbish accent!

Sorry, can’t help you with that rubbish accent!

Based on the above, it always makes me cringe when somebody says they have a friend whose cousin speaks 5 languages fluently. “Really!”, I say, burning inside. “How nice for them!” Except I don’t believe it. Why? The key word here is “fluently”. Mastering a language is not like riding a bike or memorising the chapter of a book. To speak a language fluently you need constant, daily interaction with native speakers, reaching into all those distant idiomatic and colloquial spaces that all languages contain. Doing this in one other language would take up all your time, so how could you possibly do it with 5? Being able to get by in 5 languages is something completely different, though even that is commendable in my book.

I've never played Candy Crush, but I can say 'cobbles' in Portuguese

I’ve never played Candy Crush, but I can say ‘cobbles’ in Portuguese!

So, if you just can’t be bothered with all this language learning malarkey, I have the perfect solution: get yourself a ‘sleeping dictionary’ – a boyfriend (or girlfriend) who is a native speaker of the language you want to learn. Geddit? A word of warning, however. Make sure your new, exotic love doesn’t speak a word of English or you could end up with a freeloading student on your hands. As usual, I speak from experience.

Categories: Blighty, Brazil, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

How to be a Brazza…

Live life to the full - 'The Brazilian Way'

Live life to the full – ‘The Brazilian Way’

Brazil has got everything: the World Cup, the Olympics, sunshine, Rio de Janeiro, dental-floss bikinis, crack-cocaine, car-jacking and corruption. What more could you want? But before you dash off to buy your plane tickets, there are a few useful phrases you need to learn in Brazilian Portuguese so you can better understand the people you will meet here. Only when you have mastered the following quips and concepts will you be prepared for the spectacular culture clash that will hit you like a pan of black beans dropped from the Cristo statue.

Sacanagem: If there is one word that sums up what goes on everyday on the streets of Brazil it is this. Roughly translated as “foul play” it symbolizes everything from steamy sex in a run-down motel to a dodgy deal struck at the back of a parking lot. To understand the concept, start watching the Brazilian soaps – they are full of it. I love them, but worry they are bad for my health.

How to get ahead in Brazil with Gérson's law

How to get ahead in Brazil with Gérson’s law

A lei de Gérson: (Gérson’s Law) Gérson was a gifted footballer who helped Brazil lift the World Cup in 1970. He later appeared in a cigarette ad where he said: I like to take advantage of everything. Now he is blamed for initiating the idea that, if you want to get on in Brazil, you’d better learn to get one-up on the next bloke before he pushes you under. Charming, I’m sure.

Jeitinho Brasileiro: (the Brazilian way) Fundamentally linked to the two previous items, this is the way things are done with a nod and a wink and no questions asked. Although it can mean that a “bung” is in the offing, it isn’t necessarily negative; it just means there is always a way in Brazil. Always.

Só para inglês ver: (only for the English to see) Way back when, the English tried to strong-arm Brazil into outlawing the slave trade. A law was passed, but nothing changed. So now this phrase has come to mean “not real, but just for show”. Now the English are back in Brazil trying to teach the natives to speak their language. Millions of lessons are given every day, but nothing changes.

"Would you mind lending me a few shillings, please?"

“Would you mind lending me a few shillings, please?”

Passa a grana, tio: (Give me the money, uncle) If someone approaches you uttering these words, you’d better say your prayers. Then empty your pockets. I’ve lived in Brazil for 5 years, and I’ve never been mugged. Maybe it’s because I’m just a poor English teacher. Or maybe it’s because I’m not actually anybody’s uncle?

Lá vem o rapa: (the cops are coming) If you are lucky, this may happen just as someone is trying to divest you of your last 5 Reais. But don’t hold your breath. The police always seem to be on a ‘go-slow’ here for some reason. Perhaps it’s because they are paid peanuts?

Fica na tua: (mind your own business) This is not recommended as a response to someone bothering you, unless you are tanked up on ‘caipirinhas’ and feel like eating a knuckle sandwich.

Oh dear - what a mess!

Oh dear – what a mess!

Cara de bunda: (bum face) A wonderful expression for those people who always have a monk on, or just can’t seem to smile. As an aside, it makes the notion of 69 anatomically interesting.

Mas que barbaridade, tchê! (but that’s diabolical, mate!) This is said only by Gauchos down here in the south of Brazil. It’s an exclamation a bit like “Jesus wept!” You could try using it just at the moment when a Gaucho person puts half a cow on the barbecue and licks his lips.

Bagunça: (a mess) It is sometimes tempting to refer to the whole of Brazil as a giant “bagunça”, especially when romanticising about England as a place of order, cleanliness and gentility (apart from the back streets of Bradford, of course).

Homem é bobo, mulher é chata: (men are silly, women are a pain) This is a quote from the former rock ‘n’ roll queen of Brazil, Rita Lee. She’s right, of course. Men never grow up and, as a consequence, women turn into nags.

Jararaca: a typical Brazilian mother-in-law

Jararaca: a typical Brazilian mother-in-law

Jararaca: (mother-in-law) Or, more accurately, my mother-in-law. Or anyone to which the epithet ‘old bag’ seems to fit. If I come clean and admit that the real meaning is a big, ugly snake, you’ll probably get my drift.

So there. Now you know these vital words and expressions, you are ready for the big, tropical adventure that is Brazil. Except that you don’t exist. Yes, you read that right…

Você não existe!: (you don’t exist) Roughly translated what this actually means is, “You’re out of this world!” Or, you’re amazing.

And, call me sentimental, but I can honestly say that many Brazilians I have met are just that: amazing. And Brazil itself can be amazing. The trick, as a traveller, is to allow yourself to be amazed. It worked for me.

Categories: Blighty, Brazil | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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